June 18, 2022
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J.J. Martin,
“Role Models”

Monica Aissa Martinez,
“Nothing In Stasis”

Liss LaFleur,
“The Queer Birth Project”
J.J. Martin, "Role Models"
by David S. Rubin
Building Bridges Art Exchange,
Santa Monica, California
Continuing through August 6, 2022
At a time when so much media attention is devoted to the malevolent deeds of societal and political “deplorables,” J.J. Martin’s exhibition “Role Models” provides welcome physical and mental space to contemplate the accomplishments of those who have worked to advance the greater good. Specifically, Martin pays tribute to 27 individuals who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He conceived the idea while thinking about what it is to be a role model as a respected leader within the LGBGTQ+ community and as a parent to four children that he and his husband have adopted and raised.

In researching the topic, Martin reviewed the achievements of familiar Nobel Laureates such as Jimmy Carter, the 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), Mahatma Gandhi, Mikhail Gorbachev. Al Gore, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, and Shimon Peres. He also considered lesser-known figures such as female recipients Malala Yousafzai, who fights for children’s rights in Pakistan, and Jody Williams, an American human rights activist recognized for her work in banning anti-personnel landmines. 

To pay homage to each, Martin painted individual life-size portraits in a style recalling the “Men in the Cities” imagery of Robert Longo, in that each figure is depicted in gray scale and isolated against a barren background in an active pose. In contrast to Longo’s figures, however, Martin’s portraits are anything but contorted and angst ridden. They are, in fact, treated like superstars who appear quite jubilant, athletically fit and youthful looking. These “Role Models” wear high fashion, a feature that subtly asks why they don’t receive the kind of cultural visibility reserved for celebrities who are often photographed that way.
J.J. Martin, “Malala Yousafzai,” 2019, oil on canvas,
72 x 48”. Courtesy of Building Bridges Art Exchange
The paintings are presented adjacent to one another as a running frieze that wraps around the gallery. In most of them, the honorees are shown walking (or in two instances riding a bicycle) towards us, which seems to signify metaphorically that he or she is advancing progress. And more significantly, each appears within a yellow background, which sheaths them in a golden light and links their benevolence to the artist’s idea of divinity. In a statement on his website, Martin cites the I Ching, noting that the sun “has been the inspiration for the conception of most of the representations of God” and that “Yellow is the color of the center, it indicates what is right, what corresponds to duty.”
J.J. Martin, screenshot from “Role Models: Mandalas,” 2022, video, 3 minutes 9 seconds. Courtesy of Building Bridges Art Exchange
The exhibition also includes two related series of grouped circular mandalas made by digitally deconstructing the portrait images and rearranging the fragments into dazzling patterns printed on highly reflective aluminum surfaces. Martin created the mandalas during the pandemic lockdown period as a means of coping with his anxieties by practicing a meditative creative process. In so doing, he shifted from articulating about those who have striven for universal peace to the more personal subject of the quest for peacefulness within the self. Twenty of Martin’s mandalas have an affinity with traditional religious ones in that they are geometric abstractions, while 14 of them include smaller scale versions of his Nobel Laureate portraits, with the figures emanating from their centers. Continuing Martin’s interest in the sun as the divine generator of spiritual energy, the majority of the mandalas are printed in gold.
J.J. Martin, “Mandala 97,” 2020, print on aluminum silver Dubond, 24” diameter. Courtesy of Building Bridges Art Exchange
J.J. Martin, “Liu Xiaobo,” 2019, print on aluminum silver Dubond, 26” diameter. Courtesy of Building Bridges Art Exchange
In the final section of the exhibition, we are invited to sit and watch a projected video animation in which the mandalas, with the portraits integrated into them, are set into kaleidoscopic rotation. Although conceived as a draft for a future immersive installation, the video is very effective in its present form. As its imagery continually breaks apart and reassembles through a process of visual morphing, it is exhilarating to view; and as the end point to the exhibition, it leaves us thinking about all we have just seen, and to reflect upon Martin’s principal message that happiness can be achieved simply by paying it forward.
David S. Rubin is a Los Angeles-based curator, writer, and artist. As a curator, he has held positions at MOCA Cleveland, Phoenix Art Museum, Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, and San Antonio Museum of Art. As a writer he has contributed to Arts MagazineArt in AmericaArtweekArtSceneGlasstireFabrikArt and Cake, and Visual Art Source. He has published numerous exhibition catalogs, and his curatorial archives are housed in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.
Monica Aissa Martinez, “Nothing In Stasis”
by Lynn Trimble
Monica Aissa Martinez, “Sara in Profile, Arms Akimbo,” 2015, casein, gesso, gouache, graphite, micaceous iron oxide, Prisma pencil on Arches paper, 72 x 45”
Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, Mesa, Arizona
Continuing through August 7, 2022
Monica Aissa Martinez works at the intersection of art, science, and biography, drawing human figures and biological forms that challenge us to consider realities and relationships beyond the superficiality of contemporary culture. Dozens of her works, spanning the years 2015 to 2022, are featured in “Nothing In Stasis,” which pairs small mixed-media studies on flat wooden or acrylic discs with larger-scale studies that include portraits on canvas or Arches paper. Collectively, these works speak both to the long art historical tradition of anatomical studies and advances in scientific technology that make it possible to explore unseen worlds within and beyond the human body. 

Before entering the gallery one sees a wall filled with mixed media tondos from Martinez’s series “Neglected Tropical Diseases.” She renders select parasitic organisms and their hosts primarily on discs of recycled wood ranging from 5 1/4 to 11 1/2 inches in diameter, using materials that include acrylic, casein, gesso, graphite, ink, micaceous iron oxide, and more. Subject matter ranges from the Aspergillus fungus to the Yersinia Pestis bacteria that causes plague. As with other studies, these works bring specificity to conceptions of interconnections within nature. They serve as meditations on the perils of ignoring those connections. 
Pieces from two additional series, shown in display cases, make up the bulk of the exhibition. “A Concoction of Small Life” (2018-2020) includes eleven discs made with similar materials and titled after subject matter such as bacteria, blood cells, viruses, a gene, an amoeba, and brown adipose tissue. Most notable is “Coronavirus - When It Rains, It Pours,” a study completed during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Bones of the Cranium” includes a six-work “Braincase” series (2018) with 9 1/2-inch-diameter drawings of specific bones done with casein, gesso, graphite, ink, micaceous iron oxide, Prisma pencil, mylar, acrylic discs, and bolts. 
The earliest piece, 2015’s “Handstand: Supporting Systems” (65 x 90 inches), positions a woman doing a handstand between a standing male figure and a cat. As elsewhere, its unclothed figures are rendered as complex biological forms using both realistic and abstracted imagery. Striking portraits of the artist’s parents reference their unique medical histories; and a portrait of her brother includes a map collage showing the El Paso streets where they grew up. “Portrait of Carolyn, Study of an Ecology” explores the physical traits, wellness practices, artistic impulses, and habitat of a close friend and fellow artist. 

Symbolism abounds in this exhibition, where one work features a baby positioned near a butterfly that represents change. Other works broaden the view beyond individual bodies and the specificity of their contexts, to consider shared anatomical features such as a portion of the human brain called the optic chiasm. Thus Martinez calls to mind shared characteristics within and beyond species as well as the existence of unique traits, while also elevating the beauty of diversity.
Monica Aissa Martinez, “Pandemic-All People,” 2022,
casein, egg tempera, map collage on canvas, 33 x 33”
“Nothing In Stasis” heightens our awareness of connections between microcosm and macrocosm at the cellular and societal level, pointing the way towards more expansive empathy amid the effects of pandemic isolation, on self and others. QR codes link to sections of the artist’s blog that correspond to particular works, illuminating the ways those pieces embody her own autobiography, which includes not only myriad connections across communities and fields of study, but also her own devastating loss tied to the pandemic. With this exhibition, which grew out of an artist-submitted proposal, Martinez and the museum poignantly elevate the liminal space between interior and exterior landscapes, suggesting a way forward that includes both self-care and greater consideration of the expansive web of interdependent life.
Monica Aissa Martinez, “Portrait of Chacho — Peace out, Brother,” 2020, casein, gesso,
gouache, graphite, micaceous iron oxide, Prisma pencil, map collage on BFK Rag, 22 x 30”
Lynn Trimble is a Phoenix-based art writer whose work ranges from arts reporting to arts criticism. During a freelance writing career spanning more than two decades, over 1,000 of her articles exploring arts and culture have been published in magazine, newspaper and online formats. Follow her work on Twitter @ArtMuser or Instagram @artmusingsaz
Liss LaFleur, "The Queer Birth Project"
by John Zotos
Liss LaFleur, "The Queer Birth Project," installation view featuring “Growing bodies/babies,”
2022, neon sculpture, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist
Nasher Sculpture Center
Continuing through July 17, 2022

Interdisciplinary artist Liss LaFleur served as curator, along with renowned sociologist Katherine Sobering, for the inaugural exhibition of “The Queer Birth Project.” LaFleur’s installation incorporates Sobering’s research in a collaboration that expands on each of their interests in queer identity.  
Liss LaFleur, "Birth fringe (yellow)," 2022,
fringe and metal, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.
Both promote an inclusive vision of how pregnancy, birthing, and the idea of a family appear through queer lenses. Their title is a reference to the project’s inspiration and starting point, that the “Birth Project,” a groundbreaking intervention into social mores in 1981 by pioneering feminist Judy Chicago. 
At the time Chicago’s project celebrated women, and childbearing, as creative subjects read through feminist practice. It was too early to construct a project from the perspective of gay sensibility (now referred to as LGBTQ). In LaFleur and Sobering’s view, Chicago’s project, understandably, privileged a heteronormative and binary relationship of women to the birthing process which they set out to update. 
“The Queer Birth Project” seeks to include queer women, lesbian women in particular, and the idea of gender nonconforming bodies in the conversation about motherhood. These non-normative people have historically been excluded from this discourse, with questions like “How do queer people experience birth?” By collecting birth stories from queer people, the exhibition displays a diversity of situations and events that extend far afield from Chicago’s idea of the universal “woman.” These situations and events are presented in four related artworks. 

A large-scale sculpture, “Fringe: Birth fringe (yellow),” dominates the room. It is composed of rows of vertical yellow lines formed by a fringe that hangs from above like a Calder mobile. Visitors are encouraged to walk through the installation to assume the perspective of an infant in a cradle. Yellow strands were chosen as a reference to Chicago’s use of the color in her woven pieces from the 1980’s, while the title clearly identifies the living conditions of many LGBTQ people who are still relegated to the fringes of society.
Mounted on a window are a series of neon pieces collectively titled “Growing bodies/babies.” They are clearly visible from the sidewalk outside the museum and represent a profile outline of LaFleur’s partner, who identifies as a butch lesbian woman, through the course of her pregnancy. A glowing array of colors drawn from those used by the Pride Month celebration transition from yellow, blue, and purple, to shades of pink in these seven anatomical studies.  
They are countered by the neon text-based piece on the back wall. Here the text, drawn from the curators’ research, is handwritten by a respondent reflecting on her experience while pregnant. It suggests that we should consider the reception/perception of pregnant queer bodies as valid and distinct.
Liss LaFleur, "The Queer Birth Project", installation detail featuring "It is strange to
take up so much space," 2022, neon, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.
In the spoken-word audio piece, “Soundscape: But they can’t steal my joy,” LaFleur provides the final ingredient that unifies the installation, tying it together with disembodied words. A forty-minute loop of direct quotes from Sobering and LaFleur’s research attests to the actual experiences of queer birth. These texts are sung by soprano Morgan Horning with a joyousness that presents the experiences of queer people in a spirit of celebration.  
This timely yet almost utopian exhibition presents a comprehensive vision of queer women in control of their bodies. As such, it speaks to the rights of all women, now under siege in America. Without having to say as much, “The Queer Birth Project” positions itself against the attack on privacy and freedom from religious extremism being led from the Supreme Court.
John Zotos is an art critic and essayist based in Dallas.
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